A Little Bit About Gardening

Plant Verbenia bonariensis with Care

benchI have greatly admired Verbena bornariensis since I spotted it at the Chicago Botanic Garden last summer.  It’s a wispy tall plant with fragrant purple flowers, very attractive to butterflies.  Also known as “purple top” and “South American vervain,”  it is hardy zones 7-11.  As a Northern gardener, I have started some seed this year.  It is grown in Chicago’s zone 5/6 as an annual, but please take care if you live in warmer zones This Verbena self seeds readily and has become an invasive plant in Southern and Western States.   Be conscious of the plants you introduce and the implications of your gardening habits.  For Northern gardeners, I feel that this is a beautiful annual, but if you live any zone warmer than 6, try an alternative, like Milkweed.  Milkweed offers a wonderful honey scent and is in dire need to be planted in gardens for our Monarch butterflies to survive.

Start Perennials from Seed

Red admiral butterflies on purple coneflower

Red admiral butterflies on purple coneflower

Starting plants from seed is the best way to ensure you are not putting unwanted pesticides and chemicals into your yard.  You’ll have happy pollinators with a healthy food supply.

Growing perennials is extra rewarding, since you’ll see your efforts return year after year. Here are a few full sun options to try:

  • Coneflower (comes in a variety of new colors, but purple is the original, butterfly magnet, winter seeds feed birds)
  • Shasta Daisy (cheerful white daisy)
  • Yarrow (clusters of tiny flowers with fern-like foliage, likes it hot and dry)
  • Rudbeckia (bright yellow flowers that attract butterflies)
  • Painted Daisy (fern-like foliage and pink daisy flowers)
  • Columbine (shooting star flower, usually bi-colored, reseeds readily)
  • Penstemon (tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds , come in a variety or colors, likes dry conditions.  I’m starting Firecracker, a show stopping orange/red that can take a little shade)

Most of these need to be started anywhere from 10 weeks to 6 weeks before the last frost date.  Starting seeds can help alleviate those winter blues.  So smile, Spring is on its way!


Growing in the Tropics

ferntreeI just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico.  While staying in Luquillo, I noticed a little garden patch of tomatoes in one yard.  It got me thinking, “Wow, you could probably grow a lot of your own veggies down here!”


Looking into a tropical permaculture site, I found most of the veggies we grow in our gardens all summer would do fine there grown in the winter months.  Giving your plants some afternoon shade, you could grow:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplant
  • peppers
  • beans
  • squash
  • chard
  • leaf lettuce
  • okra (something I usually associate with the South anyway)
  • Herbs: basil, parsley, rosemary

All of these common to our Northern gardens.  (Side note: I would miss growing garlic.)

The best part of tropic growing, is that during the summer, you can have fruit trees and avocado that can take the heat and rains.  Flavors like vanilla, hibiscus, and ginger would thrive too. Seems like this dude has figured it out!


Permaculture is all about working with nature, not forcing things.  If you compost, and water deeply in the morning, I think some serious success stories would unfold.

How to keep your house smelling good

indoor plantsWinter, the windows are closed.  It’s freezing and mucky outside.  The place we exist, our home, gets no air circulation, especially if you live with radiators.  Here are some helpful hints to keep the house smelling fresh in the dead of winter.

  • Keep a lively indoor garden. House plants can help circulate the air and take pollutants out, purifying the air indoors.roses
  • Buying fresh flowers, or forcing spring bulbs can add a pleasant scent to your home.paperwhite
  • Dusting.  I use a mixture of water, white vinegar, and a little essential oil. Dampen a cloth with a swig of vinegar and a dot of oil. Run the cloth under the faucet, wring, and dust.  It’ll leave your house smelling very sweet (if you use orange or geranium oil).che sleeping
  • Using a humidifier that has a well for essential oils.  Each night, I put a few drops of eucalyptus in my Vicks humidifier.  Eucalyptus is antibacterial, antiseptic and is a great decongestant (if you are feeling a bit under the weather).
  • Open windows every once in a while.
  • Scented candles as well as fires in the fireplace can make winter nights feel cozy and smell great.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals when cleaning.  Using baking soda, vinegar, and essential oils is all you really need to keep things clean.  A Guide to Green Housekeeping by Christina Strutt is my go to book.

Back of the Garden Plants

sundflowerI’m kind of a wild gardener.  I like the controlled chaos.  I want to have a garden that lends itself well to nature.  Birds, bees, bugs, cats, dogs, humans, I want them all to enjoy it.  Living in Chicago, if I wanted a completely natural Midwest garden, it would be filled with prairie natives.  I do have some, but I need those tropical annuals to make the garden pop!

My next quest for “new seeds to try,” I’m looking for back of the garden plants, the tallest plants.  The ones that will transform your yard from, “oh, cute little garden” to “oh, my god, you’ve really got a garden here!”  The tallest are always in the back.

Amaranth is IT (for me) this year!  It’s tall and it’s a super grain, packed with protein,  for either me or the birds.  There are several varieties in burgundy and orange.  Considering I’d like tall, 6 feet, I’m selecting Golden Giant, from Baker Creek.  Another tallish amaranth is Love Lies Bleeding, 3-5 feet with pink-purple cascades of flowers.

Either of these will work nicely with sunflowers and milkweed, two plants that I find are essential to a garden.


elephant earAll of these guys need full sun. I have a unique situation in my yard.  Like most city gardens, my yard gets shaded by a tall building.  So, I go from complete sun, and then almost complete shade (depending on the height of the sun in the sky throughout the growing season).  For a large background on the shady side, I plant elephant ear.  You can order tubers in colors of green or purple (almost black) shades.  They are great in larger containers or in the ground.  At the end of the season, the tubers will have multiplied, making it easy for you to dig up and have many more plants the following growing season.  I started with one little round tuber, now, I’ve got elephants growing out of my ears…ha ha…get it?

Stay tuned, more to come.

Happy New Year!

catalog pictureIt’s a new year, a new garden to plan!  I’ve been getting seed catalogs and spending many hours drooling over the images.  I’m really looking forward to try some new veggies and vibrant flowers. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you my ideas!

In progression with the growing season, I’d like a new radish.  I’ve been growing French Breakfast, which are fantastic, but it’s time for a change.  I’m thinking of a traditional bright red variety, cherry belle (Although I am drawn to the exotic looking watermelon mantonghong, with it’s pink inside and white exterior, it seems that the growing days (50-60) are a bit long for my garden.  I try to plant a warm crop after the radishes are harvested.).  Most likely, I’ll plant more French Breakfast along with a traditional cherry belle.

I’ve always grown green or spotted lettuce.  This year, I’d like to try the heirloom variety, Butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons.  An added bonus, Marvel supposedly won’t turn bitter when it gets warm and the plant begins to bolt.

As for early spring flowers, a mix of viola seeds in differing colors sounds delightful.  When I was young, I loved looking at “monkey faces.”  Botanical Interests offers a variety pack of colorful alternatives to purple and white.  To get a spring bloom, I may need to start some indoors.

More to share soon!


Christmas Ideas for the Gardener in Your Life!

beehouseIt’s the “most wonderful time of the year!”  Well, sort of.  It’s winter and gardeners are just not themselves this time of year.  There’s not much to do except turn the compost on warm days and feed the birds.  What to get the gardener for Christmas?!


Indoor gardening kits (these can range from a desk top size to a full indoor set up)

Houses for bees, butterflies, bats, or birds

Gift certificates to organic and heirloom seed companies (Baker Creek, Seed Savers)

Garden gloves (you can never have too many)

Sharpening tools for pruners and loppers

Waterproof shoes for summer and winter

Annual memberships to Botanic Gardens

Gift certificates to local nurseries (ones that don’t use pesticides on their seedlings)

Neem oil  (the only thing you need to control issues in an organic garden)


Garden Journals that provide a place to map out past, current, and future garden plans

Fancy tomato frames or other vegetable supports

Books on organic gardening specific to the region your gardener lives in

Magazine subscriptions to Organic Gardening or Chicagoland Gardening

Birding books

Epsom Salt Bath Soaks for tired muscles

xmas owl

Good Luck and Holidays!!!!


Time to Feed the Birds!

Sparrows in the snow

Sparrows in the snow

The first snow has fallen, and it’s time to fill the bird feeder for our feathered (and fluffy tailed squirrel) friends.  Most people aren’t fans of sparrows, but here in the city, I don’t get much variety.  Occasionally, I will have a few juncos and a cardinal couple stop by.  Last Spring, I even had a red winged blackbird visit my feeder, which was a pleasant surprise.   I envy those outside the city that get the chickadee and the blue jay.  I know there are birds around.  In Summer, I spy gold finches, robins, house finches, and hummingbirds.  In Winter, I just need a hobby and something to look out the back window at.

Yes, the squirrels raid the feeder!

Yes, the squirrels raid the feeder!

I do a mix of sunflower seed and a wild bird mix.  The squirrels come and empty the feeder for the best goodies, raisins, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.  In a way, I don’t mind, they scatter the seed so that the juncos, who are ground feeders, can peck and feed.  The biggest problem is the volunteer plants in the garden.  This year I bought a tray that catches the fallen seed.  As you can see in the picture, it seems more like a feeding hammock for the squirrels.  It was something to try.  Here’s to hoping for a few more interesting visitors this winter season.  Happy birding!

White Ladybug

20spottedWhen I think Ladybug, I think red or maybe orange.  I also know ladybugs are beneficial in the garden, feasting on aphids.  I was pretty surprised to see a little white ladybug this fall.  I did a little research to figure out just who he/she was.

And I found…Psyllobora vigintimaculata, the  twenty-spotted ladybug.  They can range in coloring from white to a yellowish, with also some orange at times.  The base coloring is always pale.  They eat fungus and powdery mildew.  Ah ha!  This makes sense!  It’s the end of the season, the zinnias, peonies, squash, and many others have powdery mildew, perfect for this little dude’s dinner.  They’re also tiny, and another name for them is “wee-tiny ladybug” (perhaps named by a Scot?).

To my delight, this reminds me to keep an organic garden.  Nature takes care of itself and has ways we may not see to keep order.  Eyes open!   Perhaps you’ll encounter this little guy in your garden.

Bulbs Before the Ground Freezes

bulbsToday, Chicago is getting a blast of sleet, snow, and gusts of 50mph winds.  All on Halloween, and all to remind us of the coming of winter.  If you have not planted spring blooming bulbs, you should now.  By tomorrow, I feel many of the annuals will be ready for the compost or the trash.  It’ll be time to dig up summer bulbs and tubers to store for planting next Spring.

If you are a little behind or just plain forgot to plant your bulbs, you still have a few options.  You can get them into the ground as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid.  Otherwise:

Force Bulbs

  • As a good rule of thumb, most any bulb will need 15 weeks of chilling.
  • Pot up your bulbs in a container, date, and place in the back of the fridge (away from fruits and veggies).  If the fridge is full, keep them in an unheated garage or attic where temps remain between 35-40 degrees.
  • Check the moisture from time to time.  They’ll need to have some moisture to grow a root system.
  • Remove chilled bulbs and water.  In 2-3 weeks, you should see some blooms.

Keep Bulbs chilled til Spring

  • Again, plant and chill the bulbs in the fridge or unheated area.
  • Once Spring arrives and you can dig into the ground, plant your pre-chilled bulbs, or let them come up in the containers you planted them in.
  • Wait for blooms.


I plan on forcing these pictured above.   I know by mid February, I’ll need them!